US officials: Iran does not have key nuclear material

SFGate, Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Iran does not yet have any highly enriched uranium, the fuel needed to make a nuclear warhead, two top U.S. intelligence officials told Congress Tuesday, disputing a claim by an Israeli official.

U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Maples said Tuesday that Iran has only low-enriched uranium — which would need to be refined into highly enriched uranium before it can fuel a warhead. Neither officials said there were indications that refining has occurred.

Their comments disputed a claim made last weekend by Israel’s top intelligence military official, who said Iran has crossed a technical threshold and is now capable of producing atomic weapons.

The claim made by Israeli Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin runs counter to estimates by U.S. intelligence that the earliest Iran could produce a weapon is 2010, with some analysts saying it is more likely that it is 2015.

Maples said the United States and Israel are interpreting the same facts, but arriving at different conclusions.

“The Israelis are far more concerned about it,” Maples told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The status of Iran’s nuclear program has been the subject of conflicting public statements by top military and intelligence officials recently in the wake of U.N. revelations that Iran has more low-enriched uranium than previously thought.

Earlier this month, Defense Sec. Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm.. Mike Mullen differed over Iran’s capability. While Mullen said Iran has sufficient fission material for a bomb, Gates insisted “they’re not close to a weapon at this point.”

Maples also told the committee that insurgent violence in Afghanistan has gotten more ferocious in the last year even as violence in Iraq declined.

The use of roadside bombs in Afghanistan more than doubled in 2008 over the previous year, and attacks overall increased by 55 percent from 2007 to 2008. Suicide bombings increased by 21 percent and small-arms attacks increased by 33 percent.

Some of these trends reflect more aggressive military operations in Taliban strongholds by U.S. and other NATO forces, Maples said.

Maples said the Somali extremist group al-Shabaab is poised to formally merge with al-Qaida, expanding the terrorist franchise in East Africa. An analysis of the propaganda released by both groups recently highlights their ideological similarities, suggesting a merger is forthcoming, Maples said.

Al-Shabaab conducts almost daily attacks in Somalia. A merger would strengthen al-Qaida’s foothold in East Africa.

The two groups have long been suspected of working together, but they have not yet announced a formal alliance. Al-Qaida has operations in north Africa, Yemen and Iraq.

Blair said National Security Agency is poised to take a lead role in protecting U.S. computer networks from cyber attacks. The NSA — tarnished in the public view by its role in the Bush-era “warrantless wiretapping” program — now conducts clandestine computer attacks on U.S. adversaries, and could use those skills to protect U.S. networks from similar attacks.

He said it must be done under strict oversight to make sure it is not gathering private American information that violates privacy and civil liberties laws.

Blair also stood firm behind former U.S. Ambassador Charles Freeman, his pick for a top analysis job, despite strong congressional criticism.

Freeman, who was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war, had harshly criticized the Israeli government, the Iraq war and the war on terrorism in general.

A policy council Freeman headed also has been criticized for some ties to foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia and China. Blair’s inspector general is investigating those ties while Freeman works with ethics advisers to scrub his personal finances for potential conflicts of interest.

Blair has tapped Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council, which analyzes critical national security issues drawing from all U.S. intelligence agencies. The National Intelligence Estimates are meant to be unvarnished and apolitical.

Blair said Freeman’s strong opinions are exactly why he wants him to be chairman of the council.

“I think I can do a better job if I am getting strong analytical viewpoints than if I am getting pre-cooked pablum,” Blair said.

The seven Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee sent a letter to Blair Monday expressing concerns about Freeman’s suitability for the job. They joined more than a dozen members of the House who over the last two weeks have sent similar letters and requested the IG investigation.

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